Kamila Shamsie is a Pakistan-born novelist who was educated in the United States and now lives in London, from where she recently gave the interview below. In her 2009 novel “Burnt Shadows,” Kamila Shamsie explores the indelible mark that the larger sweep of history leaves on people caught up in its maelstroms. It is an ambitious epic delving into personal sufferings against the backdrop of tragic histories spanning six decades, three generations and five countries.
The book opens in Nagasaki in 1945, where the protagonist, a young Japanese woman named Hiroko Tanaka, falls in love only to lose her German fiance, Konrad Weiss, in the atomic bombing. Trying on her mother’s summer kimono she steps out to the veranda just as the flash and blast incinerates the city, burning the garment’s beautiful swan design onto her back.
This hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) later travels to New Delhi to visit the family that might have become her in-laws, ends up marrying a Muslim man working for them, and is then caught up in the 1947 Partition of British India (between present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) — eventually settling in Pakistan.
Following miscarriages brought on by exposure to radiation, which afflicted many hibakusha, she gives birth to a son. However, the lives of Hiroko’s and Konrad’s families continue intersecting with devastating consequences — an allegory for what happens in a world run by whites in their self-interest, despite any fitful good intentions they might have.
This is a novel that accuses, but also tries to convey the personal consequences of war, racism and geopolitics. Shamsie connects the dots, showing how powerfully the past shapes the present — and shadows the future. Hiroko comes to a rueful awakening, lamenting, “I understand for the first time how nations can applaud when their governments drop a second nuclear bomb.”
Her book makes us think about how unimaginable horrors easily become possible in war.
What inspired this novel?
The story idea came from the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, and then when they were at the brink of war in 2002. I wanted to write a story set in Asia with the shadow of nuclear weapons in the background. It was to be about a Pakistani man and a Japanese woman, and that led me to Nagasaki — with the India-Pakistan confrontation a murmur looming behind.
I wasn’t able to visit Nagasaki due to difficulties securing a visa, all the documents they wanted and the need for a sponsor. And I knew that even if I went I could not see prewar Nagasaki. The city itself is not the focus of my book as much as what people can decide to do to others in the context of war.
When I was researching about the atomic bombs I was reading (U.S. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist) John Hersey (1914-93) about Hiroshima, and he mentioned the presence of Germans there. So then I had my character for Konrad, the fiance.
Nagasaki is the most cosmopolitan and Christian city in Japan, with a long history of exchanges and contacts with the outside world. Thus it is ironic that of all cities it was one to suffer this fate.
My grandmother was half-German and living in Delhi during World War II. It was difficult for her as a German to live in British India at that time. So she became the inspiration for Konrad’s sister, even though her life was very different. And once Hiroko left Nagasaki after the bomb and visited Konrad’s relatives in India it was natural that she was caught up in the Partition, which brought her together with a Pakistani man and took her to Pakistan — my center of gravity.
The arc of the story continues to touch on the encounter between different parts of the world, one that was transformed, especially for Pakistan, by 9/11. And so her son is also caught up in these tragedies of history that become tragic personal histories.
I once attended a lecture and the speaker drew our attention to Nagasaki, asking how it was possible to make that decision to drop the second bomb even after the consequences of the first were known.
Before Hiroshima, it may have been possible to imagine the horror, but it was not known. But (U.S. President Harry S.) Truman knew about Hiroshima, knew what it had done to the people — and yet did not stop the second bomb. This to me is truly horrific. To make that decision to repeat the atomic bombing speaks to the pathologies of war. There is nothing you won’t do or justify in the context of war. That single moment, that single weapon, killing tens of thousands of people in an instant.
Do the atomic bombings shape public discourse in Pakistan?
The lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have had too little impact on public discourse in India and Pakistan. In the few days between the 1998 nuclear tests by India and those subsequently conducted by Pakistan, hibakusha visited Pakistan and begged the government not to proceed. A Pakistani filmmaker made a documentary with riveting and horrible images of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and tried to get viewers to imagine what Pakistan’s cities would look like if nuclear weapons were used.
I, too, am trying to bring forward into the present the echoes of this past.
But in Pakistan it is all about India. “They have them so we need them” is the mentality. So there really is no public discourse about the implications of nuclear weapons. In the school curriculum nothing is taught about the consequences of nuclear weapons, and there is no raising of awareness about the effects of radiation.
At the time of the tests in 1998, the state controlled the media so there was no questioning or examining the government’s decision. In the English- language media there has been some critical opinion voiced, but there is a consensus supporting the decision to test because India has nuclear weapons. They are viewed as a deterrent and a guarantee that the rest of the world will step in to prevent a war because so much is at stake.
In Pakistan, nuclear weapons are looked on as just a bigger bomb, and in an abstract way people accept the need for it without thinking through the logic of fallout affecting people in both countries. (Abdul Qadeer) Khan is despised by Pakistan’s liberal intellgentsia, but seen as a hero by the general public because without his efforts (to develop atomic weapons) they believe Pakistan would be at India’s mercy.
Did international sanctions after Pakistan’s nuclear tests have much impact?
Sanctions by Japan were not as important as those imposed by the United States. Pakistan is really dependent on the U.S., and the impact was huge, sending the economy into a nosedive. Pakistan was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then 9/11 rescued Pakistan’s economy because suddenly it was needed for its geostrategic usefulness.
But the sanctions did not cause people to wonder about whether the nuclear tests were a good idea. Instead they made them feel unfairly persecuted, and made people aware how dependent and vulnerable Pakistan’s economy is.
What message are you trying to convey through your writing of five novels to date?
As a novelist, I try to avoid saying there is a single message in my books, because it is about what readers bring to the reading and see in the novel. In “Burnt Shadows,” I write about the threat of what nations can do to each other in the name of self-interest and defense.
Do you think the atomic bombings were war crimes?
It is hard to figure out what part of war is not a crime. It’s all criminal. War is the absence of morality, what we can get away with. Everyone in war commits war crimes.
I wish the myth of Truman as a great president was challenged. How could he be great when he made the decision to use atomic weapons?
But I don’t believe that other nations are any different from the U.S. The difference is that the U.S. was in a position to use them and it did. It is the imperial power of this era, and thus it is more involved in war and the inevitable crimes that entails. But it is too easy to blame the U.S. — nations and people need to look at themselves and their actions and choices.
Can you imagine a nuclear war might happen?
Yes. India and Pakistan were so close to war in 2002. Once you engage in war — and you have this weapon — there is the possibility of using it. The gap between conventional and nuclear war is not as great as people believe. If you are desperate and losing a war, there is no certainty it would not be used with horrific consequences for everyone.